Cyber War I: Estonia attacked from Russia.

AuthorRuus, Kertu
PositionHomeland Security

Suddenly, the lights go out. Communication lines fall silent. Internet connections are lost. People venturing into the congested streets discover that banks are closed, ATMs are malfunctioning, traffic lights are jammed. Radio and TV stations cannot broadcast. The airports and train stations are shut down. Food production halts, and the water supply starts rapidly diminishing as pumps stop working. Looters are on the rampage; panic grips the public; the police cannot maintain order.

This grim picture is not the opening scene of a Hollywood fantasy, but the beginning of a cyber attack, as described by Sami Saydjari, president of Professionals for Cyber Defense, to a Congressional homeland defense subcommittee in April 2007. In vivid terms, he described how a superpower can be reduced to third-world status by a cyber take-down of a nation's electronic infrastructure. The defense expert called his description "a plausible scenario"--and one for which the United States is unprepared. Even if military computer systems are usually protected against outside interference, most civilian electronic systems remain vulnerable to a massive assault that enjoyed the sponsorship of a state.

Exactly one day after Mr. Saydjari's congressional testimony, reality took the stage in the form of a large-scale cyber assault against a nation's digital infrastructure--not against the United States but Estonia, a tech-savvy nation of 1.3 million that is a member of both NATO and the European Union. The attacks were launched from Russia, Estonia's neighbor to the east and former occupier, apparently to punish the small state for daring to relocate a Soviet-era war memorial in Tallinn, the Estonian capital.

The episode has since been dubbed the world's first cyber war, or "Cyber War I", because it was the first time that a sustained, wholesale and politically motivated e-assault was launched to wreak havoc on a country's entire digital infrastructure. Until then, "cyber security" had been limited in practice to dealing with limited and narrowly targeted hacking intrusions, often as part of a clandestine operation, to probe or disrupt military command and communications systems (including the Pentagon's). And there is nothing new about cyber criminals hacking into bank, corporate and individual computer systems to steal money or information. This wave of attacks on Estonia, however, targeted the entire civil and economic infrastructure with the aim of paralyzing the society in a country, whose high reliance on computerized networks has given it the nickname "E-stonia." (1)

In the event, the near-apocalyptic scenario outlined in Mr. Saydjari's testimony did not play out with all the "secondary effects" of a cyber war bringing a society to chaotic collapse. Not this time. But the three-week Cyber War I took an emergency mobilization of all Estonia's special computer-wise expertise and resources--as well as international assistance--to thwart the e-assault and defend the core of the country's extensive electronic infrastructure. At its peak, the digital "invaders" arriving by internet knocked out the Estonian parliament's email system for several days, and major Estonian media and banks had to shut down access to their sites from abroad temporarily. This defense--the modern equivalent of pulling up the drawbridge to protect a medieval castle--was a temporary stratagem that allowed time for counter-attack as the ultimate defense.

Learning some lessons, Western countries have now taken initial steps to put in place overdue accords defining cyber attacks as a possible act of war, building up more robust defenses and agreeing on protocols for allied cooperation. A key initiative has been the creation of the NATO "center of excellence for cyber defense" joining the list of alliance facilities that develop best practices for special kinds of warfare. This one will be located in Estonia, with other NATO countries already committing to participate.

The attack on Estonia's internet systems began in the hours before midnight on April 26, 2007. Estonian-Russian relations had been brewing with bitter tensions for weeks, and that morning rioting had erupted in Tallinn, the country's historic capital on the Baltic Sea. The man who started Cyber War I was not a Russian rioter or hacker, but a bronze statue in the old city center--the Unknown Soldier memorial erected in 1947 by the Soviets and maintained during their 50-year occupation of Estonia as homage to the Soviet army for "liberating" Estonia at the end of World War II. A symbol of foreign occupation, it was never popular: Estonians dubbed it the Unknown Rapist. It was a gathering place for Red Army soldiers and their compatriots in the...

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